Hyaluronic Acid vs. Glycerin: How They Are Different and Which One Should You Use

Read on to find out the differences between the two most powerful humectants.
Fact-checked by Ana Vasilescu.

Glycerin and hyaluronic acid (HA) are some of the most coveted ingredients in beauty products, being praised by those in the know for their ability to hydrate the skin. In fact, the two are often regarded as the “holy grail of humectants” due to their water retention powers. And since we all strive for a moisturized and plumped complexion, glycerin and hyaluronic acid are a perfect treat for everyone — no matter the skin type.

While you might have seen these humectants popping up in seemingly every product out there as a panacea for fine lines, wrinkles, dehydrated skin, and dullness, there still remains so much more to learn about them. Like, what’s the difference between these two potent humectants? Or, in the battle of hyaluronic acid vs glycerin, which is better? Can we use them together, and if so, is it glycerin or hyaluronic acid first? If you’ve been pondering these questions, you have come to the right place. Read on to find out all you should know about these famous humectants. 

What is hyaluronic acid? 

Hyaluronic acid is a naturally occurring component found in the skin’s natural moisturizing factor (NMF), and it’s a critical element in keeping the complexion moist and bouncy. As a humectant, it acts like a sponge to draw moisture from the environment to the top layers of the skin, providing long-lasting hydration.[1] It’s worth mentioning that there are two major types of hyaluronic acid often used in skincare that function slightly differently:

  • High molecular weight: Due to the large molecules, it doesn’t penetrate the skin easily, acting on the surface. That means the results are noticeable almost instantly, but they don’t last long.
  • Low molecular weight: Known as sodium hyaluronate, it has small molecules that allow it to penetrate the epidermis, helping ensure long-lasting hydration.[2]

What is glycerin?

Glycerin is a natural colorless and odorless compound made from animal fats or vegetable oils.[3] Similar to hyaluronic acid glycerin is also an effective humectant that can draw water molecules from the environment and pull them into the skin to increase hydration.[4] Other roles of glycerin in skincare are wound healing and protection against external irritants.

Glycerin vs. hyaluronic acid

Glycerin and hyaluronic acid are major players in the skincare scene and are quite similar as they both are humectants. However, they also have a few traits that make them different from each other. Below are the differences between glycerin and hyaluronic acid and what they have in common:

Similarities between glycerin and hyaluronic acid

  • Glycerin and hyaluronic acid are both humectants, aka moisturizing agents that draw water from their surroundings.
  • Both reduce transepidermal water loss.
  • They are naturally found in body cells and are a part of the skin’s natural moisturizing factor.
  • Both are often used in anti-aging products because they soften wrinkles look, relieve dryness, and make skin appear plump.
  • They carry anti-irritant and anti-inflammatory effects, making them effective for improving irritation and breakouts.[5][6]
  • Both glycerin and hyaluronic acid stabilize collagen and help speed up healing processes. As such, they maintain skin firmness and elasticity.
  • They are stable and suitable for every skin type.

Differences between glycerin and hyaluronic acid

  • Glycerin is sticky and leaves a tacky residue on the skin if used excessively. On the other hand, hyaluronic acid is more lightweight and doesn’t leave sticky residues. This means hyaluronic acid is more suitable for oily skin than glycerin.
  • Glycerin can be used in concentrations of up to 78.5%, while hyaluronic acid can be found in concentrations of up to 5%.
  • Glycerin can be irritating to the skin if applied excessively, while hyaluronic acid is usually gentle and non-irritating.
  • Unlike glycerin, hyaluronic acid has antioxidant activity, meaning it can help scavenge free radicals and offset oxidative stress.[7]
  • Compared to hyaluronic acid, glycerin has emollient effects when used in concentrations under 50%.[8]
  • Hyaluronic acid comes in different molecular weights while glycerin has only one small molecular weight.
  • While both can deliver moisture in deeper skin layers, high-molecular hyaluronic acid, unlike glycerin, can sit on the top of the skin to provide instant hydration.

Can you use hyaluronic acid and glycerin together?

When it comes to glycerin and hyaluronic acid, it’s best not to choose one, but to have both as a part of your daily skincare routine. Pairing them together delivers enhanced hydration, diminishes fine lines and wrinkles look, and boosts elasticity and firmness. You can either use a moisturizer that contains both (most do) or apply a hyaluronic acid serum to hydrate the skin and draw in moisture and layer a glycerin-based moisturizer on top to complete the process and trap hydration.

Final words

Ultimately, regularly applying glycerin and hyaluronic acid is key to preventing skin dehydration and minimizing wrinkles and fine lines. The best news is that you don’t have to choose between them because everyone can use hyaluronic acid and glycerin together since they can easily be mixed into your routine for the pinnacle of hydration, softness, and suppleness.


Sources

Women’s Concepts uses reliable sources, including dermatologists’ insights, clinical trials, and scientific journals, to find accurate information and support all the facts shared in our articles. All statements and claims have clear and legit references. Read our editorial policy to learn more about our sources of information, our process of researching and fact-checking the content, and how our team strives to keep all articles updated, completed, and trustworthy.

References
  1. Papakonstantinou E, Roth M, Karakiulakis G. Hyaluronic acid: A key molecule in skin aging. Dermatoendocrinol. 2012 Jul 1;4(3):253-8. doi: 10.4161/derm.21923. PMID: 23467280; PMCID: PMC3583886.
  2. Snetkov P, Zakharova K, Morozkina S, Olekhnovich R, Uspenskaya M. Hyaluronic Acid: The Influence of Molecular Weight on Structural, Physical, Physico-Chemical, and Degradable Properties of Biopolymer. Polymers (Basel). 2020 Aug 11;12(8):1800. doi: 10.3390/polym12081800. PMID: 32796708; PMCID: PMC7464276.
  3. Fluhr JW, Darlenski R, Surber C. Glycerol and the skin: holistic approach to its origin and functions. Br J Dermatol. 2008 Jul;159(1):23-34. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2133.2008.08643.x. Epub 2008 Jul 1. PMID: 18510666.
  4. Sethi A, Kaur T, Malhotra SK, Gambhir ML. Moisturizers: The Slippery Road. Indian J Dermatol. 2016 May-Jun;61(3):279-87. doi: 10.4103/0019-5154.182427. PMID: 27293248; PMCID: PMC4885180.
  5. Juncan AM, Moisă DG, Santini A, Morgovan C, Rus LL, Vonica-Țincu AL, Loghin F. Advantages of Hyaluronic Acid and Its Combination with Other Bioactive Ingredients in Cosmeceuticals. Molecules. 2021 Jul 22;26(15):4429. doi: 10.3390/molecules26154429. PMID: 34361586; PMCID: PMC8347214.
  6. Szél E, Polyánka H, Szabó K, Hartmann P, Degovics D, Balázs B, Németh IB, Korponyai C, Csányi E, Kaszaki J, Dikstein S, Nagy K, Kemény L, Erős G. Anti-irritant and anti-inflammatory effects of glycerol and xylitol in sodium lauryl sulphate-induced acute irritation. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2015 Dec;29(12):2333-41. doi: 10.1111/jdv.13225. Epub 2015 Sep 14. PMID: 26370610.
  7. Sudha PN, Rose MH. Beneficial effects of hyaluronic acid. Adv Food Nutr Res. 2014;72:137-176. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-800269-8.00009-9. PMID: 25081082.
  8. The Soap & Detergent Association: Glycerine and Oleochemical Division, Glycerine: An overview, 1990
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